The Camel who Carried the Last Straw ~ had a Caring Peer Coach.

On a recent scroll-journey through my Facebook posts, I found a poignant letter written from a Year 12 student to the Australian director of education begging the minister to seriously reconsider an educational system which ignores the mental health of students in Australia. It is an insightful letter, not angry or bitter. Just a powerful call to those in power to recognize students as people and not products. Beautiful people trying to be resilient in response to a fragile and uncertain world. Young people with frailties such as anxiety and depression and panic attacks.

The letter was shared on Facebook, and so there were comments. All supportive and empathetic and encouraging (well, except for the one that suggested Magnesium is the answer to our mental health issues.) One response in particular struck a cord, probably because of the subject of this blog post; the response is from a high school teacher. She has first hand understanding of the struggles and stresses of her students and wants to be supportive, but acknowledges her own fragility with this poignant remark:

Thing is, just like the students, many of us teachers are trying to hold it together. Trying to push through curriculum delivery expectations while knowing that we are faced with more than kids needing an education. Knowing that teenagers are rocking up to school needing someone to invest in them as humans … in their social and emotional needs, so that they CAN reach their educational best.

Like thousands of other teachers, I spent the summer preparing to teach my curriculum three ways (all remote, all in class, hybrid synchronous and asynchronous.) Although I was ready with great technology, adapted online lesson plans, and an excited and positive mindset, nothing prepared me for the sheer exhaustion of being present and online, troubleshooting student tech and curriculum issues while holding fast to all the goals and objectives stated in my professional development plan. Please, don’t even mention the dreaded PD words… I don’t think I can fit another piece of cool technology information into my brain, no matter how engagingly cool and bright and exciting the presentation … and no more badges.

Oops … did I share too much of my frustration?

For that reason I am laser focussed on standard 1c of ISTE’s Coaching Standard 1: Cultivate a supportive coaching culture that encourages educators and leaders to achieve a shared vision and individual goals. My question is:

How can coaches inspire teachers to continue to explore and take risks with innovative technologies which enhance their students’ learning, without causing them to burn out? 

Be the Oasis

2020 has to be a year like no other for everyone. The first few words from A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite novels by Charles Dickens, describes the roller-coaster of my emotions this year so far:

It [has been] the best of times, it [has been] the worst of times ….”

The disruption to family and work wrought by the Covid – 19 pandemic has been challenging. The consequential lockdowns and restrictions have brought out the best in humanity (thousands of examples of people all over the globe using their ingenuity, creativity and technology to ease the general malaise in society) and dredged up the absolute worst (protests to highlight glaring inequalities in society based on race, counter-protests and protest suppression as well as deep political divides.)

In this atmosphere of confusion teachers are going back to school either on campus, remote or a mix of both. Most teachers I know have been preparing during the Summer with online courses, webinars, podcasts, live Twitter chats. Their email is probably much like mine and still pinging with new ideas about how to conduct remote learning effectively, Facebook live events to join, product updates to take note of, and wonderfully successful and excited educators to follow or subscribe to. But I know that none of that hard preparation actually prepared them for the exhaustion and weariness they now experience trying to juggle all the learning environments, the technology needs of themselves and their students, their own families needs, the bombardment of news…

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, teachers are people too and they need a break. Initially, when thinking about the ISTE coaching Standard 1, I was thinking about how great coaches can inspire teachers to take risks and help build their resilience. Elena Aguilar shares 10 great tips on the subject in her post Building Resilience, Preventing Burnout (2017). But right now in 2020, I think it’s okay to just REST. It may seem corny, but I think coaches need to be the oasis, the place that teachers can come to to rest and regenerate.

Besides the traits of great coaches proposed by Ellen Eisenberg which you can read below, I’d like to highlight a foundational trait which ensures that coaches will be a blessed oasis when times are difficult: Coaches intentionally build strong personal connections

Traits of Great Coaches

According to Ellen Eisenberg, good coaches are a combination of traits. She describes them as having the ‘it’ factor. They are essential to creating an environment that values teaching and learning. Eisenberg asserts that good coaches are the greatest salve against teacher burnout.

From Ellen Eisenberg’s The Coach Antidote to Burnout

Great coaches build strong personal connections

In the following intervew, Kim Cofino asks Nneka Johnson, the director of innovation at the International School in Dakar, Sudan, about her strategies for building strong personal relationships with the teachers she coaches. Nneka emphasizes that building a strong personal relationship is critical to building trust, which is foundational for a successful coaching relationship. Here’s a quick summary of Nneka’s strategies, but I recommend that you watch the interview and be inspired by her enthusiasm for coaching:

  • Remember something personal about the person being coached or their family that you can refer back to or ask about later. People want to know that you care about them.
  • Show gratitude. Send an email or card thanking them for something specific, something that you appreciate about them.
  • Take a low stakes interest in their role as teacher; show an interest by asking, ‘tell me about your teaching; what’s important to you in your classroom?”
  • Exhibit vulnerability. The coach can also learn from the teacher being coached. Show that you value them as an educator.
  • Be approachable. Pop into classrooms informally and show interest in what is happening in the moment
  • Listen intently. Listening builds trust.

Building Blocks of Trust

According Les Foltos in Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration (2013), the peer coaching relationship built on trust is powerful. He maintains that this relationship, “forms a safety net that is essential to encourage the coach’s learning partner to take the risks necessary to improve instruction. It helps teachers face their fear factor.

The five building blocks of trust, suggested by Meyer et al., and referenced by Foltos, are fundamental to building a positive peer coaching relationship.

Foltos states that what coaches do is important; however how they do it shapes their success or failure.

According to Foltos, Coaching relationships are:
*friendly *personalized *manageable *private *supported

Successful coaches are careful not to take on the role of expert (which could lead to enabling), but rather use their coaching expertise to support their learning partner’s inquiry, investigation, and ultimately their growth as educators.

Great Coaches Discern the Moment

Coaches know when to push harder to reach a breakthrough; more importantly, coaches know when to pull back and be a support. Our teachers are our greatest assets, why would we want them to collapse under the pressure of just one more thing. I titled this post The Camel who Carried the Last Straw because two weeks ago my phone pinged with another email invite to an awesome webinar series – and I nearly cried. I thought, “That’s the last straw…”

But it isn’t:)

References

Eisenberg, E. (2018, June 28). The Coach Antidote to Burnout. Retrieved October 17, 2020, from http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol13/1320-eisenberg.aspx

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.

ISTE Standards for Coaches. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches

Johnson, N., & Cofino, K. (2020). How to Build Coaching Relationships. Retrieved October 17, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KE5x-N-Utgc

Meyer, K., Peterson, K., McMann, M., King-George, S., Ragan, V., Huston, M., & Foltos, L. (2011w). Reflection on roles and trust: Building blocks of trust . Peer Coaching V4. Retrieved from http://moodle.peer-ed.com/moodle/mod/lesson/view.php?id=433&pageid=155 (login required)

Orange, M. (2020, October 06). BEST Programs 4 Kids. Retrieved October 17, 2020, from https://www.facebook.com/BESTPrograms4Kids

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